15

Imagine a fantasy hero with a 'time reset' ability like the protagonists of Groundhog Day or Edge of Tomorrow: they can 'rewind time' up to a few hours, resetting their own physical state and the rest of reality to whatever it/they were doing previously while preserving their memory of events, allowing the future to re-play in the same or different ways. Unlike those films, however, the character is not locked into reliving the same day, this is just an ability that's always there for them in life. In my particular idea the character doesn't need to die in order to trigger the effect, they can do so 'at will', but the same question applies in both cases:

How can I avoid having this character sound like a psychopath completely bored all the time?!

It's completely reasonable that a person living with such an ability would develop a complete dispassion for death and personal injury. Yes, they can still be hurt both physically and mentally, and pain is still painful, but all but the most abrupt injuries are equally unthreatening. Similarly the character doesn't really need to fear the short-term consequences of their actions - they can just reset away from any bad experiences.

These are personality traits that I'm finding hard to express without the character coming off as having no real investment in the situation. Obviously it would be very easy for such a person to actually turn into a pretty unsavoury character, but assuming that they have enough moral Plot Armour to remain a vaguely likeable protagonist, how can I give their thoughts enough depth?

For example, my character stumbles upon a thug holding up a store. She would have almost no hesitation in diving in to try and save the day: any disparity in strength or situation is a fairly minor concern; her only real danger is if she gets shot specifically in the head, otherwise she can just replay the situation as many times as it takes to get her desired outcome. But whenever I try to write an internal monologue of such a situation, it either seems like she's not thinking at all (which is certainly not the case, in fact she's thinking furiously), or that she's just completely dispassionate and unfeeling. I want the monologue to still feel adrenaline-fuelled and emotional, it would just be emotional in a subtly different way to what a 'normal person' would be feeling in such a situation, and I'm struggling to get a handle on exactly how.

  • "her only real danger is if she gets shot specifically in the head" so I assume from this damage to her head would prevent her using her time manipulation and cause death? – BKlassen Aug 30 at 17:03
  • More that if she were knocked unconscious before being able to reset and then died before regaining consciousness. It only takes a moment's concentration to trigger a reset, and I imagine over time it would become a fairly strong fear/pain reflex. – Stephen Aug 30 at 17:07
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    There are tons of examples of the characters with special powers that make them hard or impossible to kill (Wolverine etc) and while they might have some mental issues, they are most definitely not psychopaths. You may check out Immortal Life Is Cheap TV trope. – Alexander Aug 30 at 18:51
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    I see. Lack of true death does not mean the lack of thrill. Have you played violent videogames? You are not going to be killed (let's not get to swatting issue here), but can get very emotional in the process of playing. – Alexander Aug 30 at 20:25
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    "Dragged back into life, like being hauled over broken glass ..." Is it possible that the character could be able to recover from death but still wish to avoid doing so if at all possible? Or do you specifically want them to have no fear of death? – Rand al'Thor Aug 31 at 16:38

13 Answers 13

26

Psychopathy is characterised by persistent antisocial behaviour, impaired empathy and remorse. (source: Wikipedia)

Your character needs to care for others.

Watching a person get hurt, let alone killed, isn't easy. It should never become easy. That's something your character would respond to. That is what distinguishes them from a psychopath.

Now, how does your character respond? That's an interesting question. They can rewind time, sure. But can they protect everyone from harm, always? Do they accept some casualties? How do they decide when to keep on trying for a better result, and when this is as good as it gets?

Moral quandaries of this kind are interesting. Concern for others is a positive trait, it makes the reader see the character in a favourable light.

Your character doesn't fear their own death - that's hardly a new thing in literature. Look for example at Athos from The Three Musketeers. In his case it's depression rather than an actual ability not to get killed, but the end result is the same: he takes extraordinary risks without batting an eyelash. He's all but trying to get himself killed. At the same time he is a well-loved character - because he is principled, noble in his actions, and a true friend. That is, he is a good person in relation to others, even if he is not very good to himself. Which seems similar enough to what you're trying to describe.

12

I would challenge her lack of fear, if her ability can't trigger automatically as stated in comments she should still have some fear of death, things can happen around her that she isn't aware of and there are many things that can happen before she can react to save herself.

We see in Edge of Tomorrow that Tom Cruise's character becomes extremely cavalier about danger because as soon as he dies he wakes up at the start of the day again and there is nothing he needs to do to trigger this. This is not the case for your character, your character is required to consciously reset time and she must still worry about whether she will be able to react. In the situation you described having a gunman hold up a clerk, she may worry there is a second gunman, she may worry she'll blink or look away and the gunman shoots her then.

She may be able to reset time but she still lived through whatever event she reset to avoid. This could lead to her having post traumatic stress from all sorts of events that never happened (have fun explaining that to a therapist).

Lastly, as an author you may know the exact extent of her power but does she? Without having died she would have no way to know if she could reset after that.

12

What I suspect you're really asking here is, "How do I make scenes involving this character feel adrenaline-filled and emotional?" To answer that question, you have to realize that portraying this character's emotions is only half the problem; the other half is the lack of stakes.

It's one thing for your character to want to prevent injury or death to another person, which is a noble goal. Making the reader feel the same rush the character does is another thing entirely; they'll be spending the scene thinking, "Well, if it goes wrong, just reverse it and try again." Whether or not your character succeeds is essentially a foregone conclusion; eventually, she will. What you need to do is give both your character and the reader a reason to want her to succeed, on this try.

Maybe this ability can only be used a certain number of times per day? Maybe the fewer changes she makes the second time around, the harder it is to make changes on the third? When there's very little at stake, there's very little reason for the reader to care what happens. Even if your character doesn't need to fear her own death, she needs to be risking something when she jumps into a situation.

6

007 doesn't come off as a psychopath, but is singularly unafraid of death. In one movie he dives off a cliff, without a parachute, to intercept and land on the wings of a private plane. He's always got zero fear of heights, fights, guns, speed, whatever. Fearlessness is pretty much his central trait.

As Galastel says, you have the wrong notion of "psychopathy", psychopathy isn't about fearlessness, they lack empathy, sympathy, and remorse. Other people are just objects to them, obstacles or tools, they just are incapable of caring about the pain or fear or emotions of other people. (There is evidence now that this is due to actually faulty wiring in their brain, which would make it uncorrectable, not addressable by any therapy or surgery, and quite literally physically impossible for them to care.)

It is possible to be fearless without being a psychopath, other emotions can be intact. That includes love, sympathy, maternal feelings for children, etc.

I'd make it clear, on her first jump, that these feelings are present. For example, she comes across a scene in which a little girl on a bicycle has been struck and killed by car, driven by a young woman, that is now distraught and being arrested. She is asking everybody in the crowd, "When did it happen? How long ago? What time?"

She gets her answer, forty-five minutes. She jumps back in time, abandons whatever she was doing and sprints to the scene like her life depends on it, into the intersection, runs in front of the car to intercept bike and kid, snatches the little girl off the bike, as tires are screeching and the still moving bike, sans kid, is struck, tumbled under the screeching car and rolled into a mangled steel spaghetti.

There was no reason for her to make this time jump, abandon her task and sprint for the intersection other than to save the life of the little girl. You've proved her bona fides as a fearless hero and altruist, she used her time travel power to save a life.

Don't tell us what she is thinking or what she believes, devise a scene to show us what she believes. She is fearless, and will sacrifice her own interests to fearlessly prevent the death of an innocent child.

  • I'm feeling that "psychopath" is actually the wrong word to describe what I'm getting, but "007 level of dispassion" hits the nail on the head. The utter banality and triviality of, for instance, the late Piers Brosnan films, where the protagonist almost seems bored by the whole thing, is what I'm trying to avoid. – Stephen Aug 30 at 19:13
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    Well, I hope my answer helps you with that anyway. Fearless of injury or death because you know you can save yourself does not have to imply, in any way, dispassion about your goals, other people, or lack of love for parents, siblings, friends, coworkers, or romantic love for a partner. Or strangers, for that matter. It doesn't even mean she is completely fearless: She doesn't fear death for herself, she can fear the imminent death of a child or a loved one. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 30 at 21:27
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    "007 doesn't come off as a psychopath" Really? It's a while since I read any Fleming, but I think of Bond as just as psychopathic as his adversaries. – Peter Taylor Sep 2 at 15:53
  • @PeterTaylor How about Superman, then? For different reasons, is fearless in any normal situation or natural disaster, but is still capable of love (both romantic and platonic), sympathy, heartbreak, anger, laughter, etc. He isn't dispassionate, and can still fear the imminent death of someone he loves. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Sep 2 at 17:48
6

As many users have pointed out, "rewind abilities" tend to bring about a lack of stakes. Obviously, your character can only succeed if he can reset time at will, however for him to get any sympathy you need to add some cost to that.

In Groundhog Day, the cost is that he does get bored. That is our entire stake in the movie, that we want to see what path our character needs to take to succeed. Perhaps you can use this ability to show how your character, while they may not be smart, can persevere through any problem, then confront him with a problem that is simply above his grasp until he gets bored.

Another great example (and even better imo) is in the light novel RE: Zero. The main character has the ability to return to a specific point in time whenever he dies (these points are determined randomly, but replace "respawn point" with "three hours ago" and you have the same thing). This, of course, leads us to experience the trauma of disembowelment, hypothermia, being shattered like glass, being possessed, being eaten by a whale, and all other manners of death in order to get there. It gives stakes, not to his physical being, or to his success (although he does get some impediments after being cocky about it), but instead to his psychological state.

Something more in-line with your description of time travel is in Steins; Gate, where the MC can send his consciousness back through time, up to two weeks. This puts our stake again, not on his safety, but on his struggle to find the "right" path to keep everyone happy and safe.

If you want to add a bit more direction to this, you can add an antagonist that is smart enough to see through this ability. Perhaps strange powers are documented in your universe, or you just have an antagonist who either has one or knows about them, and they are able to set traps to determine: 1) what their quarry's power is, and 2) the limits of said power. Once your MC realizes that they are being had, or that someone is trying to figure them out, as long as there are some consequences for this that personally affect the character such that only by really clever application of their powers and exploitation of the antagonists' capabilities can they succeed.

On the other hand, maybe you don't need an emotionally driven character. Stories like Stephen King's Dark Tower series feature main characters that don't have much attachment at any given time, instead viewing thing's as "I have done this, now I need to do this."

At any rate, all of these methods show some kind of psychologic torment inherent to being practically immortal in a given time frame. If your character can't avoid making the same mistake, or at least being drawn to a similar conclusion no matter what they do, then eventually they come to a new understanding and reach their goal, that is all of the basic formula you need to follow to have a baseline relatable character.

4

There are many more interesting things to fear than death. Losing a loved on, being injured or losing a limb, being trapped, phobias, etc. And there are many things that can be done to a character without them ever truly being in mortal danger.

Fear of death isn't, or shouldn't be, the only thing that drives a person or character. We want to learn, better ourselves, make a difference, experience things, help others, etc, and any of these could be excellent driving motivation rather than fear of death. Someone deeply devoted to their cause may not consider death, but they are not necessarily an uninteresting character because of it.

I think the potential problem here with motivation is similar to your example, Groundhog Day- Phil reaches a point where he's so despondent because of how he is trapped in this one day in this one place that he chooses his to experiment with different ways to potentially kill himself and therefore stop the cycle rather than be trapped. Your character is not trapped - they can do anything! See anything, as many times as they wish! Learn anything! It's how they choose to use this power that will say something about them as much as how they 'sound' while doing so - do they become a concert pianist, or binge all of Doctor Who in an afternoon? Do they use it to get time alone in museums, or to spy on people, or to study more? Do they consider this an obligation, to do good because they have this power, and are vaguely annoyed by the disruption, or are they happy to help, or caught up in the challenge of getting it right? Are they aware that this is not an ability others have and are scared of losing it at the worst possible moment, and therefore rush through things they shouldn't? Do they have a memory clogged with things that haven't happened, do they get caught up in getting every moment Exactly Perfect and lose track of what they were supposed to be doing?

There are definitely options here. It's all in how you work it, and what you want your story to say.

4

He is afraid of Pain. Very afraid.

People can have differing tolerance to pain. He is not very tolerant. He judges moderate pain is unbearable.

But more important, he has a unusually strong aversion to pain. He is afraid of it just as others are afraid of spiders or snakes.

The tolerance level is genetic. The fear can be caused by one or more traumatic events. He could have been in a situation where he suffered unbearable pain for a prolonged time. He could not immediately use the time reset because the pain almost made him pass out, and confused him to the level of not thinking clearly enough to act. Alternatively, the confusion could be caused by reduced oxygen supply to the brain from an injury of an artery, related to the accident causing the pain.

Even if he knows that objectively, the pain is not dangerous to him, his instinct makes him avoid pain like common people avoid death. Or possibly much more, because one can rationally accept or intend to die, but he can not suppress his fear at all, even if he wants to.

The name of his condition is Algophobia.

2

I think you might be missing the point of Groundhog Day, and thereby missing a big opportunity.

Yes, the main character of Groundhog Day had to learn how to avoid ennui and boredom, but that was part of his character before he entered his repetitious cycle, and what ultimately led him to multiple suicide attempts.

What got him out of the suicide cycle was discovering goals that were all about passionate discovery, exploration, and improvement. Think about it this way: once that character discovered a love for piano playing, how many days do you think he had to repeat in order to build up his skills? My guess is a couple of decades worth, at least.

Your character could subsist on a joie de vivre, a love of life and its experiences. She could be a happy warrior who loves the thrill of battle, or a happy explorer who loves the discovery of new weirdnesses (think Indiana Jones), or many other variants.

2

The antagonist in Dean Koontz' Intensity does not fear death. He views boring experiences with disdain, and only values the intensity of an experience. And as far as experiences go, death is a pretty intense one.

It's stuck in my mind for the 10+ years since I read it, because he was a fun and unique character to read about. I don't even remember the protagonists from the story.

A struggle with the cognitive dissonance between morality and need for morally ambiguous intense situations could be an interesting character development opportunity for a protagonist as well. In a story where death can be experienced multiple times, a guilty pleasure for dying could require increasing elaborate scenarios to keep it interesting enough for the character.

Of course a character with these traits will come off as a psychopath, which it sounds like may be something you didn't want (because you're afraid of the character not being relatable enough [citation needed]). But there's definitely precedents for protagonist psychopaths, for instance the show Dexter.

The struggles to keep on the morally good side when it doesn't seem like there are any good options is what makes this type of character relatable to a reader/watcher. The understanding of how we've all made less than ideal decisions when put in situations where what we want and what is unambiguously good don't match up is what puts us in their shoes. We can't relate to their specific struggle, but we can understand what it's like to struggle in our own life, and we are intrigued by the uniqueness of the scenario.

2

It might not be suitable for your story and change it to something you don't want, just another idea I want to throw in. I think it would be interesting if your character loses his short-term memory with every death. He doesn't know what happened in his last ~15 seconds or what kills him. He has to be very attentively to his surroundings. This could add some interesting opportunities and your char wouldn't be bored so much.

You could also limit the count of rewinds per day or the time rewinds can be used. But again, that would change your story quite a bit.

1

How about when your character gets injured...The injuries follow through her resets. So, it isn’t death, but her injuries could make it interesting...ups her risk, ups her pain levels, but with no death...I would think this would provide a fear level.

1

You need to find a parallel to your character's situation in your own life, so you can see how you would feel and think at the time. For me, this would be someone at work having a computer problem. There is no "risk" to me but I still have a lot of different thoughts about it. I want to help - helping others is a nice thing to do, or I like the praise I get for fixing it for them, that's just how I've been brought up or that's part of my job. Equally it can be frustrating - either because it is a recurring problem, it is a distraction when I'm trying to get something else done, it is the seventh time today etc. There are differences between the first time I tried to help, or if it is an unfamiliar program etc, or if it is identical to an issue I've seen before and know about. There can also be rising pressure if what looks to be simple starts to become more complicated - I know a simple fix but that doesn't work and I have to try something else.

Applying all that to your protagonist - is this the first time she tackles a robber, in which case there will still be some question marks in her mind of whether she will be able to "reset" in time if something goes wrong, or just whether she will actually be able to stop the thief (he is bigger/stronger etc). Does she go in thinking it will be easy, only to find she has to reset again and again to try and find just the right angle to approach the thief from, or the right words to distract him etc. Is she frustrated that this comes up when she is trying to deal with a bigger issue, or is she actually pleased that something came up to add interest to her normal day? Is she keen to "have a go" just because she knows she can, or does she get persuaded into it because someone is screaming for help? Did she actually feel bored and let it happen only to then feel guilty and have to "reset" to go back & stop the thief?

-1

Look for Jeff Bridges' character in the movie Fearless (1993). That concept is the motif of the movie.

He is a person who survives a plane crash, and he has a life change experience where he is no longer concerned about dying, he is indifferent to death, since he is more concerned about living.

He is no sociopath, even though the people around him are concerned due to his change of behavior.

He simply has lost fear of death and has embraced it as part of life.

Can add more details due to spoilers, and i recommend you to give it a try.

  • Hi Mike, welcome to writing.se! Take the tour and visit the help center for more information. Currently this answer is basically a link-only answer which is frowned upon here. It is better if you can include a brief summary of what makes that character an answer to the question. What traits to they possess or what behaviors do they exhibit that shows they have no fear of death? You can include quotes or describe key moments to show why this is a good answer to the question. Good luck and happy writing! – linksassin Sep 3 at 7:04
  • Hi linkassasin, thanks for the feedback, and sorry for the lack of summary, i was in kinda of a hurry. Shall i edit my original response or should i append on the comments? – Mike Villarreal Sep 3 at 16:38
  • Hi Mike, please edit the answer itself (which I see you've done), thanks! – Cyn says make Monica whole Sep 3 at 19:03
  • It's good that you have added some details but you are still missing the ones that make this a good answer to the question. What specifically changed about his behavior that shows he no longer fears death? If you don't want to give spoilers we have a spoiler block quote that you can use with ">!" syntax. Thanks for coming back to improve your answer, that's what we love to see from new users. – linksassin Sep 4 at 1:27

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